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Tofino residents push against opting in to short term rental legislation petition calls for Tofino to hold assent vote or referendum before making decision
Tofino’s municipal council took some heat during a lively public meeting about whether the district should opt in to new provincial legislation around short term rentals at the Tofino Community Hall on Feb. 12. (Andrew Bailey photo)

A petition calling on Tofino’s local government to hold an assent vote or referendum for residents to decide whether the community opts in to new provincial short term vacation rental legislation had reached 282 signatures as of Friday morning.

“As residents of Tofino, BC, we will be deeply affected by the potential implications of the Principal Residence requirement of the Province’s Principal Residence Requirement of Bill 35 – 2023 Short-Term Rental Accommodation Act. This bill will significantly impact our community and our lives,” the petition, which was published to on Feb. 13 by Jennifer Heckert reads. “After multiple public consultations, it is clear that many in our community share these concerns. Yet despite this widespread apprehension, there is a feeling among us that our voices are not being heard by those in power. Our Mayor and Council seem to be moving ahead with their plans without taking into account the worries expressed by their constituents.”

Tofino’s mayor and five of the town’s six councillors took a fair bit of heat during a public open house on Feb. 12 where they faced about 70 residents who, judging by the applause drawn by those who spoke against it, seemed largely united in opposition against opting in to the new legislation.

“We are rushing through this faster than a person can get a building permit for a bathroom reno,” resident Duane Bell exclaimed into one of the two microphones set up at the event. “Do you think we are going through this at the proper speed and giving the proper consideration and process to all these people in this room that are going to be affected?”

The Feb. 12 discussion was dominated by Tofino’s Fred Tibbs and Eik Landing buildings as both would see their legal non-conforming use for short term rentals eviscerated if the town opts in.

Bell explained he purchased a unit at Fred Tibbs after researching to ensure it had the proper zoning for short term rentals and said he was “shocked” to learn the new provincial regulations would take that option away.

Many of the speakers, and audience members applauding them, seemed to be in similar boats in terms of owning units at either Fredd Tibbs or Eik Landing.

Resident Andy Greig was cheered after explaining how opting in would affect his Eik Landing vacation rental.

“It’s our business. We did take a chance. I wanted something for my kids in the future just because I know it is hard in this town. It’s my retirement. I don’t have a pension. It’s potentially going to devalue the place. It’s pulling the rug out from under us. What am I supposed to do? I just think it’s straight up unfair,” Greig said.

He suggested removing short term rentals from the two buildings would not create affordable housing as the waterfront properties would likely be bought up by out of towners and sit empty for much of the year.

He said his operating cost to operate his vacation rental is roughly $3,000 a month.

“I wouldn’t rent that for $3,000 a month. It would be more than that if it was deemed that long-term is my only option,” he said, noting mortgage rates are increasing.

“That’s just unrealistic…There’s going to be zero long-term capability with that. What I would do is I would end up selling it to an out-of-towner…I will just sit it empty and wait for the highest bidder.”

District CAO Nyla Attiana moderated the two-hour forum, which based on the lines at the mics when it ended, could have gone twice that long were it not for a pilates class having the community hall space booked at 6:30 that evening.

Mayor Dan Law joined councillors Ali Sawyer, Al Anderson, Tom Stere, Kat Thomas and Duncan McMaster at a table on the front stage to respond to the community’s questions and concerns.

Coun. Thomas noted the event was taking place in the Tofino Community Hall, where each councillor had made their pitch to be elected during an all candidates meeting in 2022 where housing and short-term rentals were key issues.

Thomas said she had felt at that time that a principal residence requirement for short term rentals would be a solid help to the town’s housing issues and suggested that now the province is offering to help Tofino enforce that, it’s worth considering.

“I feel obligated to explore this as an option. I know that it’s feeling rushed for people, but we are giving this an incredible amount of thought. We’re pouring countless hours of research into it. We’re taking the time to read everybody’s letters and comments and hear all the voices that are here speaking today,” Thomas said. “I don’t know which way the decision is going to go on March 12, but I know that I’m not going to feel that I rushed the decision personally. I’m going to know that I’ve given it all the due considerations.”

Coun. Ali Sawyer agreed.

“I’ve been thinking about short term rentals since my first friend got their first house and put in a short term rental suite. I’ve been thinking about it every time that I’m looking for a place to rent. I’m thinking about it every time my friends have a baby and they get a short term rental suite to help them out. I’m thinking about it when my friends have to leave town because they want to have a baby. I don’t feel too rushed,” Sawyer said.

Based on a provincial deadline to decide whether to opt in to the principal resident requirement, Tofino’s council has promised to make its decision at March 12’s regular meeting.

Mayor Law said the decision whether or not to opt in will be the first of many discussions with the community regarding short term rentals as the town looks to rewrite its zoning bylaws.

He explained that, while opting into the provincial legislation would mean the Fred Tibbs and Eik Landing buildings would lose their legal non-conforming status, council would have the option to rezone both or either properties to bring them into compliance. He added though the rezoning process can take a long time and there would be no guarantee that council would vote in favour of rezoning.

CAO Attiana said council’s zoning rewrite process is expected to begin in the spring, after the decision whether to opt in is made.

Tia Traviss has been a realtor on the West Coast for 12 years and said opting in could cause both Tibbs and Eik to sit empty.

“My clients have told me they would be leaving them empty and, knowing people who purchased in the last few years, if they did rent them out, it would be at a premium, like $4,000 a month to cover their costs. Even for sale, they are waterfront condos so I don’t think they’re ever going to be affordable housing,” Traviss said. “I would just ask council to maybe hold off on opting in now, but let’s try to create something more unique to Tofino that fits us better.”

Harold Sadler questioned how much house prices would actually drop if Tofino opts in, noting the costs of maintaining a home and mortgage rates are quickly increasing.

“The cost of living here is supplemented by my short term rental. That’s how I live here. We can look back in the past and say we shouldn’t have done that, but that is what we did and now we have to live with the consequences of that,” he said.

Coun. McMaster said he did not believe the new legislation would lead to a significant price reduction or make things more affordable.

“What I want to see is an increase in rental stock. I’m tired of looking at Facebook and seeing young people pimping themselves trying to find a place to rent,” McMaster said. “Since 2006, when I moved here, I’ve seen long-term rental stock just disappear. The Tofino shuffle that used to happen, that doesn’t exist anymore. People are just getting evicted…We’ve got to increase long-term rental stock so that young people can gradually get a foot in the market and they’re going to need help, whether that’s from parents or government or whatever.”

Sadler responded that forcing current short term rental operators to switch to long-term tenants will hinder their ability to pay their mortgages.

“Yes, you may open up some long-term rentals, but the people who owned that will be crippled financially,” he said. “Why don’t we work towards making it affordable and profitable to be a landlord and then also recognize that those of us who have lived here for a while and built our lives on the existing conditions need to be respected and allowed to continue building our lives?”

Brian Grigg pointed out that Tofino could choose to wait a year and see how the legislation works in other communities before deciding whether or not to opt in in 2025.

“I understand you’re in a tough position. You’re the lightning rod of negativity. No matter what you do, people aren’t going to be happy,” Grigg said. “We do have the opportunity to wait, collect metrics on it, see what happens in other municipalities and then make an informed decision either to opt in or opt out. Because as I’m hearing right now, it’s really speculation on both sides and we’re not using evidence.”

He added most of the feedback he’s heard and seen from the community is opposed to opting in.

“I’m kind of getting the sense that we’re considering opting in, but a lot of constituents, the people who are voting you into office are saying, ‘Don’t opt in,’” he said.

One of the night’s speakers seemed in favour of opting in, expressing concern over what would happen to Tofino’s housing prices if the district opts out and investors leave other resort communities that opted in.

“Values will increase immensely so no family here can afford it anymore,” she said. “How can we avoid a situation like that?”

Mayor Law responded that it was a “good point” and suggested that a “property will attain to its highest and most profitable use.”

“If residential properties are allowed to do short-term rental and that is a significant increase in revenue over long-term rental, then the principle is that they will eventually become that,” Law said.

He reiterated that the decision whether to opt in to the province’s principal residence requirements is the first of a review of short term rentals overall and added the impacts of short term rentals have long drawn concerns from the town’s current and previous councils.

“When we embark on a zoning review and rewrite, the first thing that we’re going to look at, council and staff, is short term rentals beyond the principal residence requirement,” he said. “This is the beginning of a process where council and staff will review short term rentals and look at further ways of controlling short term rentals.”

Coun. Al Anderson suggested “Tofino has actually been less restrictive than most resort communities” and agreed with the speaker’s concerns around more buying pressure coming to town as investors leave communities that opt in.

“Unless we either opt in or restrict them otherwise through zoning, yes there will be a lot of pressure to come and invest in Tofino,” Anderson said.

He said when Tofino was first looking at allowing short term rentals in residential zones, the council at the time saw it as a way to help residents obtain a “mortgage helper” so they could own a home in the community.

“Over the years, as that has played out, we’ve seen a different kind of situation development. The rental platforms of short term rentals have added another aspect to it that wasn’t considered at that time, so the pressure to invest in Tofino will be greater than other resort communities who have otherwise put further restrictions on short term rentals. This is a concern in terms of property values (and) community sustainability,” he said. “These are the kinds of things I’m considering as a council member about the viability and sustainability of not only our economy, but our community as well.”

This led to a back and forth between Anderson and another resident who questioned why Tofino would face increased investment pressure if the district had already been operating with more lenient regulations than other resort towns.

“We’re not getting stricter by opting in, we’re already more strict than the B.C. legislation and you just said we’re less strict than other resort towns, which hasn’t changed in the last six months. I just don’t understand how it’s going to flood people here when nothing essentially has changed except for Eik and Tibbs,” the resident said.

Anderson explained he was talking about the number of Tofino properties that are allowed to operate short term rentals and disagreed with the resident around whether Tofino’s bylaws are currently stricter than the proposed provincial legislation.

“In other resort communities, they only allow (vacation rentals) in certain areas, or not at all,” Anderson said. “I’m talking about zoning. The ability to come and invest here if we don’t opt in, will mean that we don’t have as many enforcement tools, they won’t be backed by the province, they’ll be up to our own bylaw officers and our own resources within our community to do that, as it has been…My understanding is that if we opt in, we have provincial data collection, sharing, a whole number of new tools that will make enforcement easier and less cost to the district.”

Andy Greig suggested there are several homes on the market currently and questioned if there is truly a demand for home ownership in Tofino.

Anderson responded that the district has done housing studies showing demand and entered into a partnership with the Tofino Housing Corporation in light of that demand.

“I think the housing slowdown right now in sales has got a lot to do with interest rates and less with demand, and affordability as well,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of incomes that can support the kind of mortgage that a house sells for now in Tofino. I think there’s a lot of demand, but maybe not for the price that houses are at right now.”

Mayor Law suggested a very slim minority of households in Tofino can currently afford to buy a home in the community.

“In seven years we’ve gone from 30 per cent of households in Tofino able to own a median value home to, in my guesstimation, 3 per cent or less and those 3 per cent already own homes,” he said.

Law suggested a key reason for this is the “financilization of homes” where properties are no longer primarily a place to dwell, but are instead a financial investment.

“Home values are decoupled from income and that is a problem,” he said. “When we’re looking at Tofino as a whole, we have to look at not only right now, we have to look at five years and 10 years. What does this trend mean?..That’s why the province has done this at this time, to address this. In a sense this is an existential threat.”

He added that the units at Fred Tibbs are zoned as residential units and pay residential tax.

Coun. Tom Stere suggested that about 25 per cent of Tofino’s housing stock is taken up by short term rentals.

“We do have to address this issue,” he said. “This is a potential tool to help regulate and hopefully one way or the other, if we can make the correct decisions, we will increase housing stock, potentially (increase) affordability.”

Resident Kyle Meagher cited Steres 25 per cent number and asked what council thought the percentage of the town’s economy is tourism based.

Law responded that Tofino has about 1,900 nightly rental units in town comprised of roughly 1,000 hotel rooms, 600 campsites and 300 short term rentals catering to about 750,000 visitors a year. He estimated about 52 per cent of visitors stay in hotels, 32 per cent in campsites and 15 per cent in short term rentals.

Meagher said she owns a condo at Fred Tibbs and asked if it was council’s intent for hotels to get 100 per cent of the tourism accommodation dollars, arguing that locals who have a house or vacation rental property should be able to participate in the tourism economy.

Coun. Stere responded that short term rentals are a valued part of Tofino’s economy and visitor experience and that the question is not about whether they should exist, but how many should exist.

“They are a highly valued commodity in the community in terms of our visiting population,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the question. It would be what would be the appropriate amount?”

Meagher said that Tofino “is a vacation town” and explained she bought her Fred Tibbs unit to operate as a “little hotel room” to generate income while she rents a living space and tries to save up enough money to purchase a property for her family to live in.

“These are income helpers for community members and small businesses,” she said. “The complexity of the problem leads me to believe that the discussion is longer than we have this month due to the provincial deadline.”

She suggested council would serve the community better by focusing on rezoning the properties so that the legal non-conforming status is no longer needed, rather than opt into provincial legislation.

She then asked what council is doing to encourage local development.

“If you tell me we can’t because of lack of water I’m going to ask you why we’re not talking about water before we’re talking about zoning,” she said, drawing loud applause.

Coun. Anderson responded that a water report is coming soon and the resource will be a key focus for the district’s staff and council.

Law acknowledged the decision around whether or not to opt in is complex.

“This is a difficult conversation right now and we know that Fred Tibbs and Eik are central to the conversation because of the way that the regulations have finally played out,” he said. “Those are residential units…I’ve heard if we do anything with them, they’re going to be empty. That’s an idea. I don’t know if I agree with that. The other idea is that if we don’t do this, then in the zoning rewrite Fred Tibbs and Eik won’t have their STR permissions removed as well. That’s totally a possibility.”

He said the zoning rewrite will look at the impact of short term rentals on housing across Tofino.

“It will be a conversation of whose short term rental permissions are removed. That is going to be a conversation that we’re going to have to have as a community, much like this one. It’s not going to be an easier conversation,” he said.

“Just like water and space and beaches, we are talking about finite resources and what do we do with those finite resources. What is our priority? Right now, we’re talking about housing. The idea is that, ‘Is housing primarily for living in, or is housing going to be for investment?’ That is at the heart of what council has to wrestle with right now.”

Law added it is currently possible for people out of town to buy a house in Tofino and operate it as a short term rental from afar.

“That is an issue and, everytime that happens, it does remove a home from Tofino. That has happened progressively and it will continue to happen progressively,” he said. “People who own their own home and have a vacation rental so that they can afford their mortgage, I don’t see that personally as a problem…That’s not the issue before us. The issue is that we lose a home, we lose people, we lose a family. It’s just the way it is and, unfortunately, those people aren’t here. They’re gone. They don’t have a voice at this table.”

He added people who have already been forced out of the community and lost their investment in Tofino were not in the room to share their stories and thoughts.

“Many people have invested in this community in many different ways. They put their time and their effort and their money into the community and then they don’t get a place to live, or they’re forced out of their place to live as the properties turn over or turn into short term rentals,” he said. “It’s happened for many, many, many, years. Those people are gone. They lost their investment. Some of those people grew up here, they lived here, they put in their time and energy, they’re gone. They’re not here to talk right now. There is a group of people that aren’t here and we need to recognize that as well.”

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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